More than one in 50 people in England are carrying the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) in their throat, according to the largest ever scientific survey of the infection’s spread.
Some 2.2 per cent of everyone tested as part of the new research was found to have the virus.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal Open on Monday, also indicates oral sex and smoking may increase the risk of contracting HPV, which is most commonly known as a cause of cervical cancer but can also lead to throat cancer.
The findings come shortly after a new HPV vaccine programme for boys aged 12 to 13 was announced by the UK government in July. Girls already receive the vaccination.
It is hoped the expansion to both sexes will reduce the risk of related cancers.
The study, conduced by scientists at the University of Sheffield, took 700 men and women and tested them for HPV infection, while also asking lifestyle questions relating to their sexual history and smoking habits.
The figure of one in 50 people carrying the virus is actually lower than previously feared: other studies carried out in the US and Scotland estimated the same figure to be almost one in every 25 people.
Dr Vanessa Hearnden, who led the research, said: “Previous studies have been US focused or in smaller UK studies in London or Scotland. This is the first study in the north of England, and found lower rates of oral high-risk human papillomavirus infection.
“We fully support the newly announced vaccination programme for boys, which will reduce the risk of HPV-related cancers, including throat cancer in men, and will provide further prevention of cervical cancers through herd immunity.
“However, we found the majority of individuals testing positive for high risk strains of HPV were actually positive for strains other than those covered by the current vaccine [HPV 16 and HPV 18].
“This shows the need to consider newer vaccines which protect against more HPV strains in the future, and for individuals to be aware of lifestyle risk factors such as the number of sexual partners and tobacco use.”
Dr Craig Murdoch, who also worked on the research, added: “Many people associate the HPV virus with cervical cancer but there is less recognition of the fact that HPV causes oropharyngeal cancer, and unfortunately the prevalence of this cancer has increased dramatically in the past few years.”
Responding to the findings, Dr Kate Allen of World Cancer Research Fund International said: “This study confirms the importance of lifestyle risk factors in prevention of the disease.”